By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
The Trenton Catholic Academy girls basketball team has a very simple package for success.
Take scoring contributions from several different players throughout the game, and wrap them all together with the strong binding that comes from playing team defense from start to finish.
Photo Gallery: TCA girls defeat Pennington in MCT championship
That worked to perfection in the Mercer County Tournament championship game at Trenton’s Cure Insurance Arena Feb. 21, as the Iron Mikes took a 64-45 victory over Pennington.
It was a tremendous team effort offensively, as Habiba Elgizawy scored seven of her 15 points in the first quarter; Leiyana Massenat had all six of hers in the second quarter; Maniya Custis tallied all 10 of hers in the third, and tournament Most Valuable Player Giana Boulden tabbed eight of her 12 in the fourth. Naomi Shorts, Jasmin Boyd and Wisdom Maddox also chipped in with points.
“That’s what makes us different,” coach Bob Fusik said. “Most teams say, ‘Look at stats, look at the 25-point scorer.’ We don’t have that. We have seven or eight girls that average between 14 and nine points. To me, that’s what makes a great team; you can’t key in on one person.”
That’s only part of the formula, however. Those same seven or eight also held Pennington to 15-for-44 shooting while forcing 24 turnovers.
“They all play D,” Fusik said. “You want to come to TCA, you gotta play defense.”
Custis felt that was the difference in the game. Second-seeded Pennington raced to a 7-2 lead before top-seeded TCA scored 13 straight to take the lead for good.
“I thought we started focusing more on our defense,” Custis said. “We let our defense get the stops and then score off the turnovers instead of trying to force shots on offense and come back on defense. So our defense powered us.”
It has been powering the Iron Mikes all year, as they take a 22-3 record into their NJSIAA South Jersey Non Public B tournament opener against the winner of Timothy Christian and Holy Cross Prep. The combined record of the three teams they lost to – Franklin, Cherokee and Blair – is 68-11, as the Mikes have played a strong schedule in preparation for the post-season.
In claiming its second straight MCT title, Trenton Catholic won a rematch of last year’s county final. It also took a 54-45 win over Pennington in December.
“Pennington’s a good team,” Fusik said. “We already played them once … and we knew it wouldn’t be easy. [Leah] Johnson’s a handful; (Taylor) Blunt can play.”
The Mikes did a good job on Johnson, who was dominating against Stuart in the semifinals but was held to just one point by TCA. Blunt had 13 but had to work hard for all her points.
“Really it’s about playing defense,” Fusik said.
As for offense, Custis was held scoreless in the first half and missed her first eight shots before making five straight in the third quarter to help Trenton Catholic expand a four-point lead to 16 by quarter’s end.
“As a shooter you just think, ‘Keep shooting,’” she said. “I knew I had to come on for my team to come up big. I couldn’t dwell on the shots I missed, I had to keep shooting and play my game.”
Along with the entire team buying into playing defense, the other common denominator was the pink ribbon on their warm-up jerseys and the coach’s jerseys, signifying the fight against breast cancer. They were worn in memory of Sister Dorothy Payne, the TCA president who passed away at age 79 on Feb. 3.
“I know she’s happy and proud of us,” Custis said. “We did this for her, and that’s what motivated us in this game.”
“Everything we did was for her,” Boulden said. “She’s done so much for us, for the school and the basketball programs.”